The Taj Mahal is a white-marble mausoleum located in the city of Agra, about 200 kilometres south of Delhi. It was commissioned in 1631 by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved and favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal who died while giving birth to their 14th child. When Shah Jahan died more than thirty years later, he too was entombed in the mausoleum, side-by-side with his wife. The Taj Mahal is considered by many to be one of the world’s most beautiful buildings and one of the greatest architectural achievements in the Islamic world.
Our plan was always to visit the Taj Mahal but we almost didn’t make it. Around the time we were considering going, it was close to the start of the annual Holi Festival where Indians across the country cover themselves and each other in coloured pigments to celebrate the beginning of Spring and the triumph of good over evil. Despite the hype around the two-day ‘festival of colours’, as it is also known, and how amazing and and colourful it was supposed to be, our instinct was directed more towards hibernating until it was all over, rather than engagement.
Aside from the timing of our trip to Agra with respect to Holi, I also had a few reservations about the Taj Mahal itself. Like so many major sites around the world, I wondered if it was over-hyped and swamped with selfie-taking tourists. At the time I was reading a book by well-known Indian author Shashi Tharoor, called Why I am Hindu. In the book he describes in some detail the political agenda of the Hindu nationalist government currently in power in India. In a section of the book dedicated to the Taj Mahal, Tharoor suggests that the ruling Hindutva party is not entirely comfortable with the fact that India’s most iconic structure is essentially Islamic rather than Hindu. For this reason he implies, the government is less inclined to give the ageing building the attention and publicity it deserves.
Many argue that not enough is being done to protect and promote the Taj Mahal. Its once gleaming white marble surface is yellowing as a result of pollution from factories and cottage industries around it. Repair and cleaning work have dragged on for much longer than they should have, meaning that it is increasingly common to see parts of the building obscured by scaffolding. There is also the state of Agra itself. If it wasn’t for the Taj Mahal, very few tourists would be inclined to visit the grimy and polluted city that has little else to offer the visitor. For these reasons, there has been a significant decline in tourist numbers visiting the Taj in recent years.
After flying to Delhi from Varanasi we stayed for nearly a week in the home of our friend in Sunder Nagar. Her place had become somewhat of a welcome retreat, a kind of ‘home away from home’ where we could feel grounded again after several weeks moving around from one Indian city to another. At Sunder Nagar, we realised we could make a day trip to the Taj Mahal and be back in Delhi before Holi had even started. It would be disappointing to see scaffolding interrupting the view and overall symmetry of the Taj but even more disappointing to miss seeing it altogether.
From Hazrat Nizamuddin station not far from Sunder Nagar, we caught the morning express train to Agra. The journey took two hours and on arrival we took an auto-rickshaw across the city to a barrier on the outer edge of the Taj complex. In an effort to reduce pollution in the vicinity of the main building, motorised vehicles are not allowed within 500 metres. Because of the heat and time constraints we hailed a cycle-rickshaw for the last stretch of the journey to the ticket counter, just outside the main gate. Being foreigners and paying twenty-five times the ticket price paid by locals, we were able to use the foreigner queue and bypass all the Indian tourists awaiting entry.
Next to the ticket counter was a security checkpoint that included a pat down and bag scanning machine. I was able to take my iPad into the complex, but not the keyboard attached to it. Clare had a novel in her bag which she was not allowed to take in either. No reasons were given. Apparently the rules regarding prohibited items change depending on who the security guard is. We could do little to object to the oddness of these restrictions and were forced to take our things back outside the complex, walk several hundred metres to a locker area where we could deposit them, and then repeat the security process all over again.
There are three public entrances to the Taj complex and we had finally entered through the one on the Western side. From there it was only a short walk to the main gate, a massive structure in itself, made of red sandstone and marble. We still hadn’t seen the actual Taj Mahal. It was hidden from view by high walls, but as we passed through the main gate we were greeted with the classic view of the magnificent building, located centrally at the opposite end of a 300 square metre garden. A narrow reflecting pool, flanked on either side by trees, bisected the garden and directed the eye towards the building’s centre. The symmetry and proportion of the structure and its carefully considered orientation within the surrounding landscape gave it an aesthetic beauty that approached perfection. It was a timeless and amazingly well-preserved architectural example from centuries ago yet symbolised potent ideas about love and passion still vital and relevant today. As we stood in front of it, mesmerised by its presence, we both acknowledged it was the most beautiful building we’d ever seen.
Much to our delight, we were lucky enough to be at the Taj Mahal when no part of the main tomb or its minarets were obscured by scaffolding as had apparently been the case throughout most of the previous several years.
The Taj Mahal is built on a large square plinth and access to its upper platform requires the visitor to either remove their shoes or cover their footwear with plastic booties. On top of the plinth is the main tomb which forms the central focus of the entire structure. It is framed by four identical minarets standing at the corners of the plinth. The tomb itself consists of a cube with chamfered corners and is topped by a large onion-shaped dome.
The exterior of the white marble tomb is covered in exquisite decorations consisting of sculptured relief work and geometric and floral designs incorporating the inlay of precious stones. Around the main entrance archway to the tomb are passages from the Quran, written in beautifully stylised calligraphic script, made by inlaying black marble into white marble panels. Such thought went into the design that the size of the script changes in proportion to its height above the ground so that someone reading the script from below would not notice any difference in the size of the text.
Photography is prohibited inside the main tomb where Shah Jahan and his wife are buried so tourists must snake their way through the marble interior under the watchful eye of security guards before popping out of an exit on the opposite side.
From here we could see the polluted Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges, flowing past the northern boundary from west to east. On the western side of the Taj Mahal is a mosque built of red sandstone. On the eastern side is an identical building called a Jawab, built primarily to mirror the symmetry of the mosque on the other side. The Jawab and its extensive forecourt were undergoing renovations while we were there, although they didn’t impact on the most significant views of the Taj Mahal.
After several hours walking around the buildings, admiring the sculpted decoration, the beauty and form of the central tomb and the landscaped grounds, we had a bite to eat before catching the train back to Delhi.
As we were waiting on the platform there were several barely intelligible announcements indicating which platform the train was due to depart from and this changed several times. We followed a group of tourists who looked as confused as we were and ended up in the sleeper compartment of a train bound for Delhi. When the ticket inspector came around about three quarters of the way through the journey he informed us we were on the wrong train and would have to pay full price once again for our tickets. We thought this was outrageous and refused to pay him despite his insistence. In the end, he realised he could do nothing, and had to let us be. The journey back to Delhi took considerably longer than our morning train but we were glad we had managed to see India’s most iconic building and travel to and from Agra, all within a single day.